Wok the Wok

February 24, 2013

Yesterday was the third annual installment in a local food confab called “Everybody Eats!” It’s been characterized as a bunch of guilt-laden white gardeners futilely reaching out to black, Latino and other marginalized groups in the hope of requiting the charge that the food movement is elitist. (Hey! How’s that for a convoluted thought!) I won’t say who has characterized it thus, because that would be telling. There are more than a few guilt-laden white gardeners who would sheepishly admit to some truth in the charge, however. It was refreshing to hear Marilyn Barber from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network express frustration when her group’s efforts are criticized for failing to reach out to whites. I got the sense that almost everybody is ready to reach out to almost anybody else. On the other hand, there’s plenty of work to do, and sometimes it is better to just pick up a shovel and do something wherever you happen to find yourself.

Although I missed last year’s meeting, I will say straight out that I had a marvelous time wandering around the halls of Trinity Church for this year’s affair. Like any self-respecting alternative foods event, it was a spectacular blend of the practical and the outright wacky. Maybe not quite as wacky as you would see out on the West Coast, mind you. We Mid-Westerners are un-remitting in our practicality, and I did not see even one person wearing a pyramid yesterday. Even if we suspect that they are out there making us ill by spraying nanoparticles of aluminum oxide into the atmosphere so that they can continue to sell us copious quantities of genetically-engineered pharmaceutical products, we’re not going to come out and say it publicly. Even if we’ve achieved personal salvation after adopting a vegan diet, we’ll take a just a taste of our neighbor’s homemade deer jerky in order to be polite. And even if we think local food activism is totally consistent with Ayn Rand’s version of minarchism, we’ll nod our heads graciously while someone explains how we can get a Federal grant to support hydroponic production of pigeon peas in our unfinished Michigan basements.

I tread on thin ice, here, I realize. My gentle sarcasm could easily give offense where something quite the opposite is what I would have intended. So maybe it’s better to pull a typical Thornapple blog stunt, eschew obfuscation and just quote a song lyric, this one from Tom Waits:

Paper’s full of stabbings, the sky’s full of crows
She’s singing in Italian while she’s hanging out her clothes
Carp in the bathtub and it’s raining real hard
I ain’t allowed in Buzz Fledderjohn’s yard

Or, as one of the (unapproved) robot commentators to the Thornapple Blog wrote last week: Today Headline:”His Excellency the King Cuong V Truong created a character name Actor Tom Truong for his upcoming real life scary movie Jesus Christ reborn: The Second Coming of Christ. It’s a real life movie about the son of God using Knights created by fate to help 7+ Billion slaves fight the devil worshipers cult illuminati aka (the Bilderberg Group).”

Or yet again, to quote a Russian robot who also found her way to the Thornapple site: здесь на официальном магазине вы сумеете увидеть огромный ассортимент

Or as any random blogger could write, “Welcome to my world.” No in fact, Everybody Eats! is pretty open, but pretty tame in comparison. It may be just a bunch of us guilt-ridden locals who are well practiced at tocking the tock, now trying to move on to the next phase. And maybe, just maybe, we will. As Tom Waits also sang:

You can never hold back spring
You can be sure I will never stop believing
The blushing rose, it will climb
Spring ahead or fall behind
Winter dreams the same dream, every time

Baby you can never hold back spring
Even though you’ve lost your way
The world is dreaming, dreaming of spring

Nevertheless, you’ll excuse me if I fail to open the blog for comments this week.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


February 17, 2013

This week, a flat-footed and unfunny comment on sustainability. My apologies to anyone who came here for respite or relief.

The thought that you can ruin a farm is old, and the idea that we’ve set off on a path that leads nowhere in our general approach to farming has been sounded loudly since the 1970s. In the 80s, a key report introduced the idea of sustainable development. Sustainability became a buzzword, but for a good decade and a half, most people who heard the word suspected that people who thought they knew what they were talking about when they used it were suffering from some kind of delusion. When I came to MSU in 2003, there was a general reluctance to associate any idea or program with the idea of sustainability. Then as if by magic, everything changed. Sustainability was on everyone’s lips.

What happened? Answering that would be long and too boring even for me. But one thing that happened was that lots of people keyed in on the idea that there was money to be made by looking for ways to use natural resources more efficiently. And another thing that happened—this one more miraculous than the first—is that it became acceptable to question the justice and fairness of certain economic arrangements when sustainability was on the table. These two developments meant that science and technology types long focused on efficiency could break bread with social change types advocating for fairness and justice. Within limits, organizations like massive international corporations and local city governments showed themselves willing to participate in this sustainability conversation. If these new efficiency gains could be distributed fairly, that would be sustainable.  Let’s go for it!

Except that as people began to think more carefully about the way that economic activity and social change occur within a broader environment—what our ancestors called “nature”—they started to understand how both can threaten ecosystems. Many people on the forefront of this learning curve are now ready to move beyond sustainability. They are itching to embrace resilience. I understand this. If you thought that sustainability was all about “having enough”, it was natural for you to think that finding ways to get what you want by using less would be a good thing. And it was not that difficult to link your desire for “enough” to a big ethical question: Enough for whom? When that question is on the table, you are talking pretty straight-up social justice, and it’s not that hard to see that future generations are part of the story, as well. But now you’ve figured out that this problem is actually a little more complicated than that. If you break the underlying natural system that produces a flow of resources—water to drink, fish to eat, soils to grow in, stable weather (this list gets very long)—well, you’re screwed. It’s time to rethink this puzzle.

And rethinking it in terms of resilience is not a bad idea. Most ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of stress without breaking. They “bounce back,” like the way that when you push down on a buoyant object, it pops right back to the surface. Resilience is a name for the features that allow a system to absorb stress and then return to its original parameters. But you can push an ecosystem beyond its ability to bounce back. What we need, you’re now thinking, is NOT sustainability, but resilience. It’s time to go beyond sustainability; it’s time to think in terms of resilience!

Except for two things, and I am here today to tell you what those two things are.

Number one is that resilience was always part of sustainability. If you thought that sustainability was simply about having enough, that was your problem, not a deficiency in the idea of sustainability that bunches of us have been pushing for over forty years now. As for my own self, I’ve been pointing out that there’s always been tension between people who understand sustainability to be a problem of resource sufficiency, on the one hand, and those who stress functional integrity, on the other. But that’s too complicated for a blog. Read my book.

Number two is that sustainability is both more comprehensive and more complex than resilience. One of the problems that we face in achieving sustainability is that some of the socioeconomic systems we’ve come to rely on are too resilient. We need to break them and look for something better. Sustainability is a great way to start a conversation, and we shouldn’t give up on the idea just because that conversation makes us re-think our assumptions a little bit. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams sat across the table during President George Washington’s cabinet meetings to have a conversation about democracy, they discovered that each of them understood this idea that they had just fought a war over somewhat differently. We can be thankful that they didn’t give up the conversation to look for some new word.

Sustainability is still a good idea. Let’s not give up on it just yet.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


Salmonic Wisdom

February 10, 2013

Here’s an update on some breaking news we’ve reported several times before. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released their draft environmental assessment of a genetically-engineered, fast-growing salmon the Friday before Christmas, 2012, and announced the public comment period on Dec. 26. The draft finds no basis for failing to approve the product.

All right, all right! I know it’s lame to call this breaking news if I can wait six weeks before reporting it. I could have reported it in the last Thornapple Blog of 2012, but I chose the occasion to talk about food hubs, instead. I even started the food hubs story by noting how untimely it was. In fact, I can’t even remember when I learned about the FDA’s action on the fast-growing fish. I might or might not have known about it when I wrote my food hubs blog. I did know about it well before this week, but I wasn’t going to break up food ethics icons month and all those cool blogs on rock star farmers in order to report on some stinking fish. And then last week rolled around, and if I was going to blog about the Super Bowl, well, it pretty well had to be last week, didn’t it?

So here we are, six blogs later, just now pointing out that the FDA has cleared a genetically engineered animal for regulatory approval. And here’s the point: I’m willing to bet five dollars to a donut that neither regular reader of the Thornapple blog knew about this before you read it right here. (Anyone wishing to claim their five dollars need only prove that a) you are one of the two regular readers of the blog and b) that you knew about this fish thing before February 10, 2013. I’ll be happy to pay up. I can’t be out more than $10 bucks.)

This is a point worth noting in a food ethics blog not because I’m deeply upset about this action. I don’t think this will turn out to be the environmental catastrophe that some food activists think that it is. Indeed, I remain steadfast in thinking that most of the anti-GMO activism misses all the main points worthy of ethics or activism when it comes to the food system. The point is worth noticing because of the timing of the announcement. FDA has gotten pretty cleaver about making these kind of announcements. Maybe they observed that when all the big studies on the impact that genetically engineered crops have on monarch butterflies got released early on September 11, 2001, nobody paid much attention to them. If you make your potentially stunning and controversial science-related announcement on a day that people are focused on other things, nobody notices.

If you are a government bureaucrat, you are generally not going to be someone who craves the opportunity to be interviewed by reporters from CNN. You don’t want to stir things up. That’s only going to irritate your boss, who was appointed to his or her job by whoever happens to be President at the time, and Presidents generally want to be the center of attention their own selves. They don’t want some nerdy underling in one of science-based regulatory agencies stirring the pot. So you look for opportunities to announce your potentially controversial decisions when reporters and/or the public are focused on other things. You pretty much need to do it on a regular work day, which cuts out weekends. Otherwise, you would just attract attention to yourself.

So clustering activity around Christmas looks pretty good. It’s going to be days before anyone pays any real attention to current events. It was also a good time because odds were good that everybody was going to be focused on the fiscal cliff. Remember that? How soon we forget! Of course FDA hasn’t actually approved these fish yet, despite some statements to the contrary. They’ve just taken another step in that direction. There’s a sixty day comment period on the draft environmental assessment, so it’s not too late for readers of the Thornapple blog to weigh in on the issue. But I wouldn’t look for an actual announcement after the sixty day period expires on Feb. 24 or so. Maybe after the next war.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

What’s In Your Bowl?

February 3, 2013

2013 marks the fourth February for the Thornapple Blog. Which means we’ve gotten through more than three years of blogging on food ethics without noticing the annual event that consumes everyone’s attention about this time of the year. You are probably thinking that I’m going to go on and say something about Puxsatawney Phil, who predicted an early spring yesterday. After last year when we lost all the cherries, we in Michigan are not as keen on early spring as we might have been. We look out the window in early February and take comfort in that snow drifting down to provide fresh cover for an already white landscape. Following out this thread would, of course, take us straight into climate ethics.

But if you are actually reading the blog on February 3, 2013, you are probably not thinking about climate ethics. You’re making plans. Maybe you’ll get together with friends to have a bite and kibitz around the warm glow in your living or rec room. You are probably thinking that I’m going to go on say something about how the hearth is a focal object that centers and gives meaning to daily life. You probably remember that discussion from my book, The Agrarian Vision, and you’re expecting me to reprise that point for the blog. I probably should do a blog or two on focal practices, if only I could figure out how to say it in five hundred words, cracking side jokes all the while. But appearances to the contrary, I’m not actually so out of touch as to think that any readers of the Thornapple Blog would also have been readers of The Agrarian Vision.

No, we both know that you’re not huddling around the fire with a bunch of friends to share some community spirit and respite from the winter cold. You’re thinking about snuggling in and turning on the TV this evening. You are now probably thinking that I’m going to say something about Episode 3 of Season 3 in the popular ITV series Downton Abbey that is being broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service stations around the country. This would not be a bad guess, because no matter what else is happening around 9:00pm tonight, I expect that Diane will indeed be ensconced in front of a television set tuned to WKAR, our local PBS affiliate, anxiously awaiting news about poor Sybil’s baby.

But in fact it’s probably evident to anyone who’s reading the blog on the day it’s posted that I’m leading up to the fact that the Super Bowl is being played later today. I’ve now run out of tangents to forestall getting to the actual topic of today’s blog, so I might as well face up to the fact that 160 million people are expected to be watching tonight, and to the fact that there have been newspaper and other media stories on the game, commercials and hoopla appearing at a steadily increasing pace for two weeks now. If you are a digital anthropologist who has painstakingly recovered the blog from a fossilized electronic memory device in the year 4545, you may not immediately know what I am talking about.  Of course, from my vantage point in history I can’t be sure that they aren’t getting ready to play Super Bowl MMMDLXXIX, but somehow I doubt it.

There’s also the possibility that you’re reading the blog in March of 2013, and this year’s Super Bowl is the last thing on your mind. How soon we forget. If you are an anthropologist in the year 4545, you probably wouldn’t get the food connection, either. That’s because “you ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes. You won’t find a thing to chew; nobody’s gonna look at you.” But back here in 2013, we’ll find plenty to chew sitting around the tube watching the great pop culture machine roll out a stream of clever new advertisements for beer, automobiles, soft drinks and other consumable products (punctuated, of course, by bursts of football, fireworks and lip synching from Beyonce). Chips constructed from all manner of grain and fats by our astounding food manufacturers; dips made from cheese-food product, bean-food product, vegetable-food product, soybean-oil-food product and (our favorite) “other natural ingredients”-food product; non-alcoholic, sugar-free, gluten-free and also a few hyphen-free beverages; even the rare homemade quinoa tabouli or white-bean chicken chili. We are a diverse lot here in the 21st century.

And if my math is correct, there are around 140 million Americans who won’t be watching the Super Bowl tonight, the rest of the planet’s population notwithstanding. So here’s the burning food ethics question: what will you guys be serving for Downton Abbey?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University